Welcome back to Sunday reading.

Best thing I’ve read this week wasn’t an article – I’ve just finished re-reading Replenishing the Earth, James Belich’s epic history of the ‘settler west’ in North America, Australia, New Zealand, and a few other places. It puts New Zealand’s explosive late-1800s growth into context with similar settlement booms in the rest of the New World, and in doing so punctures a few retrospective myths about our progenitors. This includes the idea that New Zealand was settled mainly by hardworking yeoman farmers growing wool for export. At the time it looked a big more like a big get-rich-quick land speculation scheme! How very Auckland.

Here’s a review of the book, in The Independent:

Explosive colonisation in North America, Australasia and southern Africa was marked by dramatic alternations of boom and bust. It “always ended with a bang, usually a big one”, and the third type of colonisation emerged. With economic bust, the colonies’ dreams of prodigious independent futures faded, growth slowed, and economies had to be rescued by a new dependence on exports to the “oldlands” of Britain or, for the American West, the urban East. Instead of moving toward independence or equality, the “newlands” – Australia, New Zealand, Southern Africa, the US and Canadian Wests – became more closely tied to the old. The process lasted well into the 20th century: shared collective identities strengthened, along with this economic re-integration.

“Greater Britain”, as Belich emphasises, had no formal existence – except briefly as the “White Commonwealth”. It was geographically fragmented. But it was economically and culturally integrated through recolonisation to the point where it was virtually a second United States. Decolonisation came only in the mid-20th century, much later than usually thought, with the emergence of real rather than nominal Dominion independence.

Indeed, in some ways it is still in process. Canucks, Aussies and Kiwis still hotly debate their national identities, and how these relate to their British inheritance, to their newer and more diverse migrant populations, and to their surviving indigenous peoples.

Belich’s work also makes it clear how vast the late-1800s settler land grabs truly were. How much of a long-term influence has the that had on the collective unconscious of the settler societies? I sometimes get the sense that people are always reaching out for the next depopulated frontier.

Speaking of, in The Baffler Martha Bayne has a fantastic critical article on the way that the American Rust Belt has been re-imagined as a new blank canvas for settlement: “Utopia Parkway“. Worth reading for the local history:

Indiana knows a thing or two about repurposed utopias. Two hundred and forty-one miles south of Gary, smack in the middle of what coastal pundits might dub “Pence Country,” the pastoral town of New Harmony perches on the bank of the Wabash River. Where the surrounding hamlets are marked by rusted-out farming equipment and drive-thru liquor stores, New Harmony is relatively booming. Sure, there’s no school, and the main drag is sleepy at high noon, but the town is tidy and prosperous, with a gleaming, modernist visitors’ center looming at the edge of town. New Harmony has kept the dust of rural Indiana at bay by banking on historical tourism, the modern way of building on an existing foundation.

In the nineteenth century the town was home to not one but two utopian communities. First came the Rappites, eight hundred or so German millennialists who arrived on the banks of the Wabash in 1814, after selling Harmony—their first town, in Pennsylvania—to the Mennonites. Led by its austere and terrifying patriarch, Father George Rapp, the sect built a new village in Indiana, naming it “Harmony” as well. The Harmonists lived there in pacifist, celibate community for ten years, preparing for the New Jerusalem. But in 1825 they sold this town, too, to Robert Owen, the Welsh industrialist who had established a workers’ utopia of sorts at his textile mill in New Lanark, Scotland.

A socialist and a Deist, Owen sailed to the States to try and put more of his ideas of cooperative living into practice, and enticed a thousand or so others to join him in his Indiana experiment. His disciples sailed the Ohio River to “New Harmony” later that year on what was later dubbed “the Boatload of Knowledge,” so learned were its passengers reputed to be. To quickly increase the population of the town (and to perform the labor that the Boatload’s elites weren’t about to, egalitarianism be damned), Owen issued a public call for the “industrious and well-disposed of all nations” to emigrate to Indiana.

In Owen’s utopia, private property was abolished, children as young as two were placed in communal schools, and the education of girls was encouraged. Women, shockingly for the time, wore pants. The apothecary dispensed free medicines, and the grocery supplied dry goods and sundries on credit. The former Rappite church was turned into a hall for lectures and other public entertainments, where Owen, during his infrequent visits, railed against the three great evils of property, religion, and marriage.

The whole thing lasted less than two years, splintering into three competing factions. By 1827, Owen’s vision of the perfect socialist community had collapsed. Wrote John Humphrey Noyes, founder of the Oneida Community, once best known for its practice of free love and now for its line of silverware, in his Strange Cults and Utopias of 19th-Century America:

The greater part of the town was now resolved into individual lots; a grocery was established opposite the tavern; painted sign-boards began to be stuck up on the buildings, pointing out places of manufacture and trade; a sort of wax-figure-and-puppet-show was opened at one end of the boardinghouse; and every thing was getting into the old style.

Oh well!

More dispatches from the Rust Belt. This week, the fans of a band called the Insane Clown Posse marched on Washington DC to protest their classification as a street gang. (They call themselves the Juggalos. They don’t seem to be a street gang.) They were marching the same day as some fascists were holding a pro-Trump rally. Because everything in the US has gone seriously sideways, conceptually, this has drawn all sorts of feverish comparisons. It’s also led to some interesting articles on What The Juggalos Really Mean, like Citylab‘s interview with the maker of a film about them:

Generally speaking, how did the Juggalos you talked to feel about their city?

They love Buffalo, but until recently not many of them had been anywhere else. But all people from Buffalo love Buffalo. It’s the city everyone loves to rag on, so Buffalo has a huge amount of pride. It’s kind of the perfect Juggalo city.

They definitely gravitate toward areas that are struggling or working class. Of course, this is where they can afford to live, but also I think it’s where they feel comfortable. Most of the Juggalos I know were originally based in South Buffalo, which is often considered—not totally correctly—a working-class white area. They were eventually evicted and they relocated to the East Side of Buffalo, which is a mostly black part of town that is also unfairly maligned. Buffalo is a highly segregated city, and the East Side is continually and historically neglected. The Juggalos are good neighbors, and they’re friendly, so everyone tends to get along with them. Their current neighbor is a retired 70-year-old teetotaling veteran and he’s at their house all the time. They genuinely love community and have been a positive addition to the neighborhood. Also, people get a kick out of them.

Hapi, a Native American Jugalette. (Scott Cummings)

The West Side of Buffalo has gotten hipper as it has gentrified. The Juggalos were definitely not interested in living there. Honestly, they fit in pretty well on the East Side. Also, most of the people who make fun of them would wet their pants if they walked down one of those streets at night.

Juggalos are a lot more diverse than what you might expect. I almost immediately was shocked to meet multiple black Juggalos. Most surprisingly, there are a ton of Native American Juggalos, in part because one of the most successful Native musicians, Anybody Killa, is on Psychopathic Records. One of my favorite people I met is a gay Juggalo pharmacist, and he’s as real as they come. He lived in one of the nicest apartments I’ve ever seen in Buffalo.

Most of the Juggalos I know work in the food service industry, or maybe do construction or roofing. There are a couple of good local supermarkets that offer insurance, so that’s the dream. A lot of the guys worked at a pizza place. The Juggalo lifestyle does attract a lot of mentally ill and physically disabled people, so there are also plenty of people who are on disability.

Yeah… it’s a bit hard to know what to make of it.

Diverting away from the Rust Belt, Noah Smith asks (in Bloomberg View) whether “cities are the future of suburbs”:

The whole notion of “city” versus “suburb” is based on the way the world looked during the first part of the 20th century. Jobs were clustered in dense urban cores. People would live in the residential rings surrounding the city, and commute in to work. The suburbs were “sub“ because they depended economically on the city.

This pattern was reflected in economists’ models of cities. But in the 1980s, urban economists began to realize that cities didn’t have to be shaped like a series of concentric rings. New polycentric models reflected the fact that what we call a city — greater Houston, or greater Los Angeles — could in fact be a series of smaller cities, all trading with each other in close proximity, with commuting zones and housing markets that overlapped. Researchers found that by the year 2000, most American cities fit this model better — jobs were no longer clustered tightly in a central business district, but dispersed throughout sprawling metropolitan areas.

The new, dispersed pattern of development makes it very hard to separate city from suburb. If you live in Redwood City — traditionally considered a suburb of San Francisco — and work in a startup there, are you suburban or urban? The boundaries of existing municipalities aren’t much help in making this distinction.

Smith goes on to suggest:

If enough people move to a low-density area, it becomes a high-density area.

People are pouring into Dallas and San Diego. So unless those cities continue to sprawl ever farther out across the countryside, the new arrivals will increase density. People will want to live close to their jobs instead of enduring hour-long commutes. Apartment blocks will spring up where once-empty fields or single-family homes stood. Today’s fast-growing suburb is tomorrow’s urban area.

In other words, the great urban revival might not be ending, it might just be relocating. Instead of piling into existing cores, Americans might simply be creating new ones across the country. And if each of these new cities creates the productivity advantages enjoyed by places like San Francisco and New York City, this could be a good thing for the economy.

However, traffic engineering is a key barrier to suburban places becoming more urban. If population density increases, it creates the opportunity for more walkable, mixed-use, public transport-intensive habits. But bad street design can still serve as a handbreak on that. In that vein, Yonah Freemark (Streetsblog) asks whether walkability will follow expanded rapid transit in Los Angeles:

L.A. doesn’t deserve its reputation as America’s most car-oriented city, but it sure commits a lot of land to moving and storing automobiles. The city alone has 18.6 million parking spaces. In the county, 140 square miles are used for roads and highways, and 200 square miles are devoted to parking — put it all together and that’s significantly larger than all of New York City.

Current policies don’t help matters much. Parking minimums compel new developments to include parking spaces, increasing costs for residents and creating inducements to drive.

To the city’s credit, the Transit Neighborhood Plans have reduced parking requirements around the Regional Connector project downtown. Mixed-use buildings are allowed to “share” parking between their residential and commercial components, and developers of major projects have to “unbundle” parking from the price of rents, meaning people don’t have to pay for parking spaces they don’t use.

Overall, however, the TNPs don’t do enough to alter parking requirements.

Diefenderfer said that “reductions in parking can be very controversial,” especially on the west side of the city, like along the Expo Line. “We’re not being as aggressive as we might be” downtown, she suggested, because “in L.A., there’s a concern about increased density and impacts on traffic or neighborhood character.”

For its part, Metro has made an effort to cluster construction around its major stations through a joint development program that targets agency-owned property. So far, more than 2,000 units of housing — a large share of which is subsidized — and more than 1.5 million square feet of commercial space have been completed. Some of these projects, such as the Hollywood & Vine complex on top of a Red Line station, have added significant development within walking distance of stations.

Yet the agency’s progress on this front has been slow compared to its construction of new transit lines. Despite opening more than 27 years ago, for instance, much of the Blue Line running south from downtown remains surrounded by parking lots — some owned by the transit agency, like at Artesia.

Park-and-ride facilities still predominate around many stops, creating pedestrian-hostile environments. At North Hollywood (shown at the top of the post), where commuter parking was recently added, nothing besides a surface lot has been built in the 17 years since the subway stop on the Red Line opened. A major project is on the way, but the process shouldn’t take decades. With L.A. Metro planning to open dozens of new stations soon, coordinating development with transit expansion should be a more urgent priority.

It’s a nice reminder that change at the macro scale (such as the development of a citywide rapid transit network) has to be backed up with change at the micro level (especially improvements to walkability around all the stations).

One last article, from flooded Houston. In the Houston Chronicle, Leah Binkovitz reports on how bikes became essential after Hurricane Harvey:

In the wake of Harvey, an estimated one million cars were flooded, leaving many in a car-dependent city with fewer options for getting around it. Conventional wisdom – as conventional as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman – maintains that Houston has “no mass transit.” But even before Harvey, almost 10 percent of households in Houston did not have a vehicle available.

And some of them relied on mass transit and bikes to get around.

Now, Stern is hoping he can help organize and donate bikes to people in need after the storm in what’s been dubbed the Keep Houston Rolling campaign. Trying to figure out what his organization could do best to help after the flooding, Stern said, “the best idea was to get as many bikes as we can, fix them and put them in the hands of people who need them, primarily people who lost a vehicle, still owe money on the note and can’t afford a new one.”

Teaming up with BikeHouston, FreeWheels, Rice Bikes and other groups around town, the campaign has already collected or expects to collect about 500 bikes from Giant, Trek and other donations, said Stern, including from a bike drive Saturday at Interfaith Ministries. There’s also a crowdfunding page set up to help fund any needed repairs on the donated bikes, helmets, lights and other accessories.

That’s it for the week – see you next time!

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  1. Thanks for a good interesting compilation and no mention of a recent election.

    The explosive colonisation of the American west and similar in NZ are often used as proof that high rates of immigration is great for the economy. Actually it was a massive land grab, spurred by a gold rush and not to the benefit of the original population. It is the failure to find resources that can be exploited that has led to our current NZ immigration leading to flat-lining productivity and exports remaining well below target. The successful examples of investment that needs high quality immigrants such as Rocket labs and Weta workshops are rare.

    “”in the 1980s, urban economists began to realize that cities didn’t have to be shaped like a series of concentric rings.”” Len Brown said “all great cities have a centre” when it was suggested that a network structure was more robust and an more efficient use of tranport – for example harbour bridge in those days was almost empty in one direction when heavily congested in the opposite direction. Hopefully more enlightened thinking is now involved in planning for a growing and modernising Auckland.

    1. 🙂 I thought of you, Bob, when I read “cities didn’t have to be shaped like a series of concentric rings”. They certainly don’t. And they should have fingers of farmland throughout them too. 🙂

      “the idea that New Zealand was settled mainly by hardworking yeoman farmers”… Yes, I’m trying to remember the name of a book about NZ soils. It described the damage done to the soils here in the 1800’s because the immigrants were from factories, not farms. They made a whole lot of mistakes their grandparents would never have made.

      Interesting reading thanks, Peter.

      1. I had never thought of the ‘fingers of farmland’ – unbuilt land in North Shore is either bush or grass. Putting us all but especially children in touch with how their food is produced is educational. You have reminded me of the animals in Cornwall Park.

        1. What I wonder about is Swanson Train Station – although dense housing is best located along the rapid transit lines, is there merit in reserving one train station to be next to countryside instead? Could the area be developed to cater to city-dwellers, providing farm experience in a variety of ways – one-day workshops on pruning fruit trees or soil building to sequester carbon, farms you can walk around, horse riding, one day or one week farmwork opportunities, business team building events learning to pick nuts, farmstays, etc. The opportunity to go by train would take cars off the holiday highways and allow teenagers to go by themselves…

          “City Country Fingers” is a pattern in “The Pattern Language” which I think you’d love, Bob. It’s in the library but the full text is also here: https://archive.org/stream/APatternLanguage/A_Pattern_Language_djvu.txt

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